High blood pressure is known as the silent killer. A patient with chronic hypertension may go for years without any disturbing symptoms. On the surface all may seem calm. This sometimes gives patients a false sense of security, and may lead them to be inconsistent when taking their blood pressure medication and monitoring their lifestyle. However, that extra pressure in the blood vessels is pushing against the flow of blood pumped by the heart. Think about it. In chronic hypertension every single heartbeat experiences greater than normal resistance, day in and day out, year after year. To compensate, the heart walls become hypertrophic (thicker) to push stronger against the increased resistance. Eventually the heart is no longer able to compensate, the amount of blood pumped decreases, and the patient is in heart failure.
Now let’s apply this to your potential financial situation. You are generally able to buy the things you want, eat the food you prefer, and attend the entertainment activities of your choosing. Sometimes spending may be greater than your current cash flow, so you compensate by using some of the loan money allocated for the coming month, or by putting the extra money on a credit card. It’s just a drop in the bucket, right? But this activity, repeated day after day, month after month, will eventually outpace your allocated loan money, or max out your credit limit. Suddenly you are out of loan money with months to go before the next distribution, and you have a massive credit card debt that accrues 3x the interest of your student loans. You are now in the heart failure stage of money mismanagement. It is an acute financial crisis that resulted from the mismanagement of a chronic spending problem.
So what’s the treatment? Drum roll please:
Your budget is equivalent to managing your blood pressure!!!
Mrs. DebtAnatomy and I thought we knew how to budget when we were in undergrad. We were both working part time jobs, and now and then we would log on to our mint.com account to make sure we weren’t hemorrhaging money. Little did we know that this was the equivalent of liberally applying salt to all our food and forgetting to take our blood pressure medication.
Luckily for us we had a rude awakening before we reached financial failure. Upon acceptance to medical school we had to decide how much money to borrow for living expenses. But we had no idea how much money we spent on a monthly basis! This is when we realized that our idea of budgeting was weak and ineffective. This was the moment we decided to become budget warriors.
Steps of making a budget:
Step 1: Avoid any and all budget strategies that rely on a program to categorize your receipts for you. For example, Mint.com analyzes your bank account and categorizes your spending. These programs are still very useful for getting an overall view of your cash stash, but the pitfall is that it allows you to go a month without even thinking about your budget. So use programs like Mint.com to obtain a 30,000 ft view of your financial empire, but don’t rely on it for a budget. That is like taking your blood pressure medication once a month. Hello heart failure! Instead, a solid budget strategy should require you to get in the trenches and think about your budget every time you make a purchase.
Step 2: This is a continuation of step 1. Pick a tracking strategy that requires you to think about your budget at least once a day, and preferably every time you make a purchase. The simplest solution that we have found is software called You Need A Budget (YNAB). Downloading YNAB is free, and you get 34 days to test it out. If you want to buy it after those 34 days, it’s a one time purchase of $60. Also, YNAB is free if you are a student! Simple write an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and provide proof of enrollment, and they will send you a special licensing code, good until the end of the year. If you’re still a student by the end of the year, just send them another email for a new key code. This software links your desktops, laptops, and mobile devices together. Every time I make a purchase I immediately whip out my smartphone, open my YNAB app, and record and categorize my purchase. I am immediately notified of how much money I have left in those categories for the remainder of the month, and I walk out of the store thinking about how to meet my monthly budget goals. It only takes 30 seconds to complete, and I am constantly thinking about my budget. This is the equivalent of taking your blood pressure medication every single day. If you don’t want to use an app, you can set up a similar system using excel spreadsheets and dropbox.
Step 3: Make your monthly spending categories. These will most likely change as you track your spending, but you have to start somewhere, so make your best guess! Here are the categories that we use:
Step 4: Make rainy day fund categories. This is my favorite part of the budget! Rainy day funds are designed to prepare you for emergencies and expenses that don’t necessarily occur on a monthly basis. Every month we save a specific amount of money in each rainy day fund in anticipation of an emergency or repair. The balance in a rainy day fund is always carried over to the next month. For example, I destroyed the rear derailleur of my mountain bike in October. This costly repair didn’t destroy our budget, because we had already saved for it unknowingly in the preceding months with my bike maintenance rainy day fund! This will also save your budget from heart failure each time December rolls around and Christmas presents are purchased. Here are our rainy day categories:
General Emergency Fund
Step 5: Make savings categories. These work similar to rainy day funds, but they are for fun things. We simply use a lump savings category and a vacation category.
Step 6: Now that you have your categories, sit down and set a goal for each category for the coming month. The first couple of months you do this you may feel like you’re shooting in the dark. That’s ok! The important thing at this step is that you try.
Step 7: Track your spending for the month. This means that you respond “Yes!” every single time the person at the cashier asks if you want your receipt. Record your daily expenses in real time and watch how much you have remaining in that category.
Step 8: Have a budget meeting at the beginning of every month. It is EXTREMELY important that this meeting includes every person using the budget. I cannot stress enough the importance of spouses working on their budget together. It might be uncomfortable at first, but it gets better! The first order of business in this meeting is to review the past month. Talk about which categories you did well in, then talk about the categories where you overspent. Avoid being accusatory or pessimistic. Budgets are messy. We have never had a month where everything in our budget fit perfectly. The point is to learn from both the positives and negatives of the previous months. Sometimes this means you decide to change a monthly goal for a category. Other times it will mean you decide to change your consuming behavior. After reviewing the previous month, talk about goals for the coming month. Don’t be afraid to adjust your category goals each month. These budget meetings should take at least 20 minutes at the beginning, but after several months they can be done much faster.
Step 9: Repeat this monthly cycle of having a budget meeting, making goals, and recording your daily spending. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments to your spending behavior, your goals, and your categories. Your budget should be dynamic, and no two months will look the same. If your budget is too hard to modify, it will fail. If your budget is too forgiving and loose, you will fail. Every month you will get closer to getting your budget in the sweet spot, where your goals are bold but attainable.
We have followed these budget steps for over a year, and the results have been amazing! We know exactly how much money we spend every month, making it very easy to plan how much money to borrow for the coming year. Since we started budgeting we have whittled our monthly budget from $2200 to $1800 without too much effort. Think about that! The simple act of true budgeting allows us to save an extra $400 a month, or $4,800 a year. While these results are great, the best result is that we feel unified and in control of our money. Spending within our budget gives us a sense of freedom. We are using our money as we have chosen to, and are no longer a slave to the dollar bill. We are fighting financial flabbiness and developing habits that will one day help us blow our debt pile into oblivion.
Do you have a budget? If so, is it working? If the answer to either of these questions is no, now is the best time to change! Try these steps, and be sure to modify them when need be.
Tell us about your budgeting successes and pitfalls in the comments below!